IN DEFENSE OF MALCOLM GLADWELL.

Sorry for the slow blogging today. Meetings are the enemy of the blog. But I did want to say a word on Malcolm Gladwell, who's coming in for a lot of semi-deserved flack for his article on underdogs. In the piece, Gladwell offers up a puff job on Silicon Valley parent who coached a team of 12-year-olds to championship by spurring them to employ full court press. Gladwell uses this to make his point about the tactics of the underdog: The weaker power can only win if it aggressively defines the rules of the conflict in a way that disadvantages the stronger power. This isn't exactly a new insight: It's called asymmetric warfare. And it makes no sense in terms of basketball. If full court press were really a fail-safe strategy for weak teams, more of them would use it. It's not a new concept.

But Gladwell isn't an academic and he's not a traditional reporter. Insofar as he has a beat, it's modern fables. Stories with a point. He's like Aesop for the corporate class. To wit, the grasshopper isn't really a lazy insect. But then, the point of that story is the importance of hard work, not the characteristics of different bugs. And it's true that hard work is important. Similarly, full court press doesn't guarantee victory for weak basketball teams. But the point of that story is that weak agents need asymmetric tactics, which is also true. You get this in his books, too. Gladwell's core competency is finding fun stories that illustrate interesting -- and even true! -- concepts. It can be a bit precious and, in terms of the stories, occasionally wrong. But it lets him explore useful theories in a readable way. If you want to attack the work, you really need to go after the legitimacy of the basic theories. Questioning the stories doesn't get you very far.

And because I enjoy Galdwell's stuff, here he is on spaghetti sauce:

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